Monday, October 12, 2009

Milwaukee Film Festival Day Four 9/27/2009

Film #7 - Theater of War
Film #8 - Seraphine
Film #9 - The Best of Shorts
Film #10 - The Yes Men Fix the World
Film #11 - Chef's Special

Rolling out of bed at 9 a.m. is normally not a problem for me on the weekends, considering I'm up and around at 6 a.m. during the week and am not famous for staying up late (anymore). However, getting out of bed followed by the suddenly monumental task of getting in the shower in order to be at the theater for 12 hours was insurmountable to me. I filled up on a bowl of cereal and threw a couple of granola bars in my bag to sustain me for the day and then I was off to the theater.

Unfortunately, though I walked into the theater 25 minutes early, I became acutely aware that the promise that pass holders get first seating if they're lined up 15 minutes before the show didn't apply to first shows because lo and behold I walked into a packed theater. OCD Shelly immediately started growling at the people who were sitting in my normal perch (there goes my ass groove) but I managed to find a seat close the front where I could not only see the screen but do abdominal exercises as well since I was in this whacked out rocking chair thing. Unfortunately I couldn't see anything else because the lighting was so bad, and since my "penmanship" is negligible on a good day, I knew I was going to have to find my secret decoder ring when going through the notes for Theater of War. All things being equal though, I was happy because I was about to see a documentary starring my favorite contemporary actress, Meryl Streep.

Throughout the day I managed to stave off my hunger with Diet Pepsi and the occasional granola bar, and even though I had to endure sitting next to a woman who apparently thought it would be a good idea to bathe in patchouli before going to see Seraphine, I did see some great films on day 4, and one not so great film. We experienced technical difficulties during The Yes Men Fix the World which caused us to miss about six minutes of the film, and after sitting through a Shorts program that had films on a couple different formats, causing long pauses between, and the final film of the day started 25 minutes late due to technical difficulties (on a Sunday night mind you - anyone who knows me knows how I rarely go out on Sunday nights because they're my last gasp of relaxation before the week) which caused us to start an almost 2 hour film at 9:45 p.m. Despite exhaustion by the end of the day and a growling stomach that would scare off Genghis Khan, the day went well.

Director: John W. Walter
USA - 2008 - English
Previous Screenings:
Tribeca Film Festival 2009
Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Theater of War, a documentary about the creation, process and staging of the Bertolt Brecht play, "Mother Courage and Her Children", which was adapted in 2006 by Tony Kushner for The Public Theater/NY Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. The play features Meryl Streep in the lead role as Mother Courage and a strong supporting cast, including Kevin Kline. The film chronicles the production of the play, but it also looks at Brecht's politics and motives for writing the play, which was ultimately a response to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) of the 40's and 50's, written after Brecht became a Marxist and substitutes the current Iraq war for the original World War II setting.

Meryl Streep begins the film by saying, "We all live off the war." This statement is revisited several times throughout the documentary, which has a strong underlying theme of the (sometimes tumultuous) marriage of politics and art. A large part of explaining the history of the play and Brecht's motivations fall on Jay Cantor, a novelist who teaches a class in Marxism and Brecht at Tufts University. One of the "11 unfriendly witnesses", Brecht, shown in archival footage at a HUAC hearing, toys with the committee by pretending he had a horrible grasp of the English language, stating later, "If you look like you have a bad grasp of the language, they'll ask you less." His assistant director at the time described the sight as, "He turns it into a play, a comedy written by Brecht." "Mother Courage" was conceived after the Hollywood 10 went to jail and he returned to Germany after leaving the U.S.

Theater of War is a very good film, though certainly high on the "dry" scale, which really works for me. Unfortunately I was constantly being interrupted by someone behind me who would make, "hmmmm interesting" sounds every time they weren't snoring, so that got to be old pretty quickly. When I was able to block that out, however, I enjoyed the movie immensely. Streep is an amazing actress, and it's no secret that she's my favorite contemporary actress, but in this film we are able to see how much of an intellectual she is. And though until this point I had not read any of Brecht's plays, discovering his creative process and motivations absolutely make me want to explore his work. Like "Mother Courage", the documentary is multi-layered, and is inter cut with footage and protesters from different wars throughout history, and, like the play, the obvious underlying theme was, "We don't like war." However, this was not a main ingredient in the conceit of the piece, and ultimately, the play and supporting footage and interviews come across as heavy, but not heavy-handed.

3 stars out of 5

Director: Martin Provost
France - 2008 - French with English Subtitles
Previous Screenings:
Newport Beach Film Festival 2009 (Award Winner)
Seattle International Film Festival 2009 (Award Winner)

In 1905, a devout Catholic housekeeper named Seraphine (Yolande Moreau) leaves the convent she is with and begins painting gloriously colored canvases at the age of 41, simply chalking it up to "God's work". When she is "discovered" seven years later by her new employer, German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), he takes her to acclaimed shows in Europe and eventually, New York's Museum of Modern Art, but her success is interrupted several times, mainly because of war; interruptions that, exacerbated by a burgeoning mental illness, ultimately cause her to suffer a complete break from reality.

Seraphine is based on a true story, and is a powerful, amazing film, due in large part to Moreau's incredible performance. Though Seraphine is a simple woman, the performance is complex. Seraphine is a woman of few words, and most of her emoting is done through facial expressions and body language. She exhibits weariness and a heaviness that exceeds her actual physique that made me exhausted just watching her, and when she is joyful, it is infectious; she really pulls you into her corner. Moreau is a French actress, so you may not be able to place her, but after a few minutes I was able to recognize her as the landlady from the film Amelie.

The pacing of Seraphine is slow, but exquisitely so. Director Martin Provost is not afraid of lingering on a shot for longer than usual, or what is actually conventionally comfortable. For example, the last scene of the film consists of about three minutes of Seraphine walking up a hill; and instead of being boring or distracting, the audience I was in were mesmerized, and, in many cases, crying. Seraphine is an extremely emotional film, due in large part the rich and tragic story and sublime acting. Though Moreau was the star, Tukur should be commended for his subtle performance. He may come across as emotionally stunted, but his ultimate gift to Seraphine is the greatest she could have received and you realize how deeply dedicated he really was to her. Though there were a few charming parts, Seraphine quickly punches you in the gut before you realize what is coming, and truly, the film is better because of it.

4 stars out of 5

Directors: Various
Countries: Various

(No stars will be attached to these, just mini-capsule reviews)

Please note - if you are interested in seeing any of these shorts, most of them are available on You Tube for viewing.

Rope a Dope
- Director: Laurent Briet
USA - 2008 - 6 min

A young girl has a "bring it on" moment, challenging a boxer to jump rope. This short was good, but not great. However, it was entertaining, flashy with quick editing and, for lack of a better word, "cute".

John and Karen - Director: Matthew Walker
UK - 2007 - 4 min

A polar bear awkwardly begs forgiveness from the girlfriend he wronged. And she's a petulant penguin. I loved this one. It was my favorite for Oscar contenders last year and it wasn't even a nominee, just on the short list. This humor in this one is purely visual, and probably a little abstract for a lot of audiences - only a few of us were laughing, but we were laughing HARD.

Short Term 12 - Director: Destin Cretton
USA - 2008 - 22 min

Counselors try to relate to and help institutionalized teens, while working on themselves. I thought this short was interesting, and actually I forgot that I was watching a short because there was a fairly full-bodied story and a lot of back story revealed through conversations and actions, without stooping to exposition.

The Herd - Director: Ken Wardrop
Ireland - 2008 - 4 min
Footage of a deer who suddenly begins to hang out with a big herd of cattle. Short and sweet, this certainly was the cutest of all of the films. Inter cut with short takes of interviews with the farmer who owns the cattle, along with his mother, the story turns hilarious when she is simultaneously telling the camera that her son wouldn't disturb the deer, while the son of course is saying he wouldn't think twice about getting rid of the deer if it got in the way. Cute, funny and pleasant.

Next Floor - Director: Denis Villeneuve
Canada - 2008 - 12 min

During an opulent dinner party, a table of gluttonous guests find themselves sinking lower and lower. The grotesque dinner guests attack their food like predatory animals and shovel it in like they are going to be hibernating, when suddenly the floor shakes and the they drop through the floor. After a moment to compose themselves (and get brushed off by the help) they continue their feast. This happens repeatedly, with the head waiter announcing "Next floor!" each time. The film is highly stylized, but I could relate to the opening and then closing shot of the film after a while; the shot was of the waiter just staring directly at the camera, and I felt the same, kind of like, "Ohhhkaaay..." Maybe I should attach a Dante's Inferno bent to it to make it more substantial, because whatever its aim, if there was one, I didn't get it.

Lies - Director: Jonas Odell
Sweden - 2008 - 14 min

Three stories of lies people tell: a con man, a drug-addicted mother trying to pass as "normal" and a boy who steals from his mother. Exquisitely animated, using silhouettes and avant garde graphics. I would have liked the short a lot more, I think, if the credits had not been white against a white background; I could barely read them and my Swedish is a little rusty. And by a little rusty I mean non-existent. This did provide an interesting perspective, however, because I was forced to only pay attention to the visual and I felt like I was watching a work of art; though I did feel like I missed out because the bits of the stories I was able to catch seemed interesting and I wanted to know more.

Princess Margaret Boulevard - Director: Kazik Radwanski
Canada - 2008 - 14 min

A woman defiantly confronts the frustration and confusion that are the effects of her Alzheimer's disease. Straight forward, interesting and sad, this film documents what is probably the last weeks she is going to spend on her own. There really isn't a lot to say about this one, but it is good.

Spider - Director: Nash Edgerton
Australia - 2007 - 9 min

A man takes the wrong approach to apologizing to his girlfriend for being immature. What can I say about this short? I don't even know how to describe it, other than as a cautionary tale about playing practical jokes. Easily my second favorite short, and it only reinforced my sense of humor is, when I found myself the only one laughing at one point, after a particularly shocking moment. Spider ends with such a shocking bang that the audience was both yelling various exclamations, like the one I was repeating, "Holy sh**!" and laughter and clapping. It was one hell of a way to close out the compilation, got people talking, and I promptly e-mailed everyone I knew to look it up on You Tube.

Director: Andy Bichlbaum & Mike Bonanno
USA - 2009 - English
Previous Screenings:
Sundance Film Festival 2009
Berlin International Film Festival 2009

The Yes Men are a group of activists who practice "identity correction" by a number of methods, but their most frequent and successful projects have involved creating fake Web sites for various companies who commit corporate or social wrongdoings on the public. They wait for an invitation from a speaker's bureau, convention or news program who have mistaken them for the real deal and then agree to speak, where they generally make ridiculous statements under the guise of being that company's high-level representative. They fool people more often than one would think, and the results are always entertaining. In The Yes Men Fix the World, the two prominent faces of the group, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not believed to be their real names) take on Dow Chemical on the 20th anniversary of the atrocious chemical disaster in Bhopal, New Orleans and HUD after the Katrina disaster, and the New York Times.

This was one of the few films that I had on my list as a must-see since I have been a fan of this group after watching their first film, The Yes Men, made in 2003, where they engaged in similar activities, but with different companies. Personally, I find this kind of corporate espionage to be gratifying and entertaining. Their actions speak for themselves, and provide most of the humor in the film, but there were a few priceless moments, (one involving a Tom of Finland backdrop for a conservative pundit) that had me dizzy from laughter. Satire, when done well, is priceless. In order for it to be done well, there has to be a large amount of intellect injected into the mayhem. Sascha Baron Cohen has perfected his mixture of gross-out humor, social commentary and intelligence; The Yes Men have done the same in their milieu. While I was in tears laughing, I was also at times learning of atrocities I had never heard of, or had heard little of. The Yes Men aim to make a point, like Michael Moore aims to make a point, there are just two different approaches: one is heavy-handed, one is absurdist.

And let's not forget the set of iron balls on these guys. To stand in front of hundreds of people (and in the case of Dow Chemical, being filmed for an international audience of millions via BBC America television) and not only impersonate a high-ranking official of some sort, but then as Exxon, get people in their audience to hold lit candles while telling them that the candles were made of a substance they invented called "vivoleum" that was made of the people killed in Exxon chemical spills? I unabashedly love these guys, and I want people to see this film, even if it's just food for thought.

4 stars out of 5

Director: Nacho G. Velilla
Spain - 2008 - Spanish with English subtitles
Previous Screenings:
Palm Springs International Film Festival 2009
London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival 2009

When doing research about Chef's Special, I kept seeing thinly-veiled references to one of my most beloved directors, Pedro Almodovar, so I was eagerly anticipating this film. Unfortunately, I soon found that the only similarities I could find were the language and the two main actors, Almodovar staples. Chef's Special is the story Maxi (Javier Camara), a gay chef and restaurant owner, who finds himself precariously juggling work and a social life, with the delicate balance toppling once he receives custody of his two children, whom he has managed to avoid until now. To complicate matters, he finds himself in a love triangle between himself, his best friend Alex (Lola Duenas) and an internationally-known soccer player named Ramiro (Fernando Tejero) who happens to be closeted. All of this mayhem is occuring while the promise of a visit from an unannounced (but expected) Michelin Guide food critic, whose good review could guarantee the restaurant's success.

Even reading my summary, I find that this movie really should have worked, for many reasons. From my experience, Spanish directors can do comedy very well, and this, coupled with the fact that I'm a bit of a foodie, should have guaranteed at least some enjoyment. But alas, I found none. In fact, I saw this film after a long day at the Milwaukee Film Festival and was actually worried about watching the food on the screen, but it turned out that I needn't have worried since cooking had no place in this film, despite the theme, which was... interesting. The comedic elements were played as bad slapstick, and the plot was barely there, with actors emoting by widening their eyes and flailing their arms around. Most perplexing to me was that this film was sponsored by the local GLBT organization, whereas I found the constant "fag" jokes to be completely offensive, and neverending.

Truthfully, there isn't a lot for me to say about Chef's Special, because I can normally come up with coherent things to write when I'm given at least some kind of decent material to work with, even if it's substantive in a bad way; but Chef's Special was nothing more than a waste of my time, which is a real bummer, since I take every opportunity I can to pontificate on any kind of film, good or bad. Admitting that I'm not even able to talk about a film is probably the worst thing I can say about it.

When looking for a good Spanish film experience, watch Volver or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and don't waste your time with this one.

1 out of 5 stars

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